The revolution starts next Tuesday...right after soccer practice!
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
The Great Divide
Hendric Stattmann"The Grand Canyon"
Two bills in Congress, both designed to improve mental healthcare, reveal a growing rift in the mental health community
Like many parents of children with mental illness, I have spent much of my life feeling isolated. At social events or the morning water cooler, while other parents share their children’s accomplishments—“Mary got elected to Student Council! John got the MVP award for his soccer team!”—I am usually silent. It’s hard to brag about how your child was able to plead his misdemeanor battery charge down to a mere juvenile beyond control status offense, or how he was the star patient in his psychiatric ward last weekend, even though both are arguably notable accomplishments.
When I finally spoke out about the struggles my family faced, I found an instant new community of friends, mothers like me who had become vocal advocates for their children’s care. But I also discovered that not every mental health advocate supports the same goals I do. This rift in the very advocacy community that should be supporting parents like me and kids like my son has been growing for a while. The divide has widened even further after the tectonic tragedy in Santa Barbara, when a young man whose parents had sought treatment for his mental illness for years took his own life—and the lives of six other people.
At its center is a disagreement about serious mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—and the best ways to care for this vulnerable population. That disagreement is evident in the contrast between two proposed bills that both seek to remedy America’s broken mental health care system. To my mind, the biggest difference between the two bills is this: one treats people with serious mental illness. The other does not.
One of the most controversial features of Representative Murphy’s HR3717, the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” is its Assisted Outpatient Treatment requirements, which the opposition has labeled “forced treatment.” Yet even Representative Barber, the author of the second bill, acknowledged on Monday’s Diane Rehm Show that “involuntary treatment is necessary from time to time.” And many of the provisions in HR 3717, including a revision of HIPAA laws, might have stopped Jared Loughner before he shot Rep. Barber in Tucson.
Dr. John Grohol and others like him are worried about “arbitrary distinctions” in mental illness he says HR 3717 creates. I agree with Dr. Grohol’s point that all mental illness can be crippling or even deadly, just as a cold, if left untreated, can lead to fatal pneumonia. But I also think we do need distinctions in mental health, just as we have them in physical health. The current focus on behavior rather than organic brain disease is the real challenge in making sure that people with serious mental illness get the medical care that they need. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, “Oh SAMHSA, Where Art Thou?” there is no readily apparent or useful information for me, as a parent of a child with serious mental illness, on SAMHSA’s home page. And this is the government agency tasked with providing resources to people with mental illness!
As I read the opposition’s often vitriolic attacks on mothers like G.G. Burns, a friend of mine who shared her family’s painful story with Diane Rehm yesterday, I’m reminded more of religion than science. We have this very human tendency to rely on our own belief systems about the mind, and especially about our ability to choose and to be accountable for our choices, rather than looking at the choice-stealing reality of brain disease. G.G., in talking about her efforts to get treatment for her son, told a harsh truth: “We are forced to watch our loved ones die with their rights on. Without help, there is no hope.”
The comments section of Diane’s show demonstrates the wide variety of challenges parents continue to face, and why so many of us are still afraid to share our stories. We have the mental illness deniers, the Mad in America anti-medication crowd, the folks who blame our bad parenting, the consumers who think that everyone with mental illness can seek treatment and recover like they did, and the E.F. Torrey haters (and boy, are they an angry bunch! They should try some SAMHSA sponsored yoga!).
Still, I think that a robust discussion about HR3717 is a good thing. Task-oriented conflict can ensure that the end result—fixing our broken mental healthcare system—is the best it can possibly be. And certainly the experiences of people who have experienced involuntary commitment need to be carefully considered (see this powerful essay at "The System is Broken," for example ). I wish Diane Rehm had included the voices of people with serious mental illness on her show.
But when we rely on our belief systems about what mental illness is (or isn’t), when we retreat to our anecdotal or lived experiences rather than considering other points of view, it can be too easy for the dialogue to devolve into person-centered attacks rather than focusing on productive, inclusive solutions. We don’t have time for any more of that kind of talk. The consequences of inaction on mental illness are unacceptable. We cannot continue to treat serious mental illness in prison, or to ignore it on the streets. That’s why I support HR 3717.